Kidnappings a blow to Philippine image

President's attempt to free hostages, including three Americans, has meant both human and peso losses.

As government troops have battled kidnapers in the southern Philippines this past week, two hostages, at least 16 soldiers, and an unknown number of Abu Sayyaf rebels have died.

But another casualty affecting the country has been the Philippines' struggling tourism industry, which is suffering from the country's cycle of political instability and lawlessness.

In just 13 months, the Philippines has been dealt two severe blows to its international image. On May 27, Abu Sayyaf Muslim bandits raided a tourist resort in Palawan, abducting 20 employees and guests, including three Americans.

The Philippines was about to recover from an earlier international embarrassment caused by the Abu Sayyaf's April 2000 cross-border adventure, when the group kidnapped 21 mostly European tourists and staff of a Malaysian resort in Sipadan, off Borneo, and brought them to the southern Philippine island of Jolo.

In last week's foray, the Abu Sayyaf ventured further north to take hostages from the upscale Dos Palmas resort in Puerto Princesa in Palawan. Nine escaped over the weekend, but dozens of other hostages were reportedly taken from a hospital on the southern island of Basilan.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, only four months into her job, has adopted different tactics from her predecessor to deal with the Abu Sayyaf, sending troops to Basilan. Yesterday she said the government was studying martial law for Basilan.

Last year, former President Joseph Estrada's government had dragged the Sipadan hostage crisis to well over five months before the foreigners were released. Libya and Malaysia were allowed to pay ransom totaling about $20 million.

Foreign television networks had free run of the jungles of Jolo, profiling the Abu Sayyaf and tweaking Mr. Estrada's administration. At least four foreign journalists reporting on the hostage crisis were in turn kidnapped and ransomed.

Tourism has suffered heavily from the Sipadan incident. Tourism secretary Richard Gordon said the industry failed to reach a target of 2 million visitors last year. According to the Department of Tourism, arrivals dropped to 500,000 in the first quarter of 2001 compared with 560,000 for that period last year.

Political upheaval has added to the country's problems. At the height of Estrada's impeachment in December, bombings in Manila killed 18 people and wounded more than 100. Street protests in January led to Estrada's downfall and then-Vice President Arroyo's taking power.

Estrada supporters rioted on May 1, protesting his arrest and jailing for corruption, posing the first big challenge to Arroyo, who declared a one-week state of rebellion and ordered Estrada's allies arrested.

Arroyo's second challenge - defusing protests by civil society groups over the restructuring of the power sector - was barely contained when the Abu Sayyaf struck again. A week earlier, extortionists attacked another luxury resort in Davao, capital of the southern Mindanao province, killing two employees.

The repercussions from the two resort attacks for the Philippine tourist industry "are very serious," says Marlen Yeptangco, president of Boron Travel, one of the largest local tour operators. Mr. Yeptangco, who spoke on behalf of the Philippine Travel Agencies' Association said: "We have had 100 percent cancellations or rerouting for Palawan. Many Filipinos are even rebooking their domestic vacations to go to foreign destinations."

Gordon told reporters in the Dos Palmas aftermath: "It could take one or two years before we get over this, but we will survive."

Arroyo's strong response to the Abu Sayyaf has the support of Manila's freewheeling press, which accepted the early news blackout she imposed on the military operations. Amando Doronila, a respected columnist in the Philippine daily Inquirer, wrote: "Today, the government is better organized to cope with this crisis and has got its act together...." He noted that Arroyo's rescue operations are less cluttered, the policy is clear, and there are immediate results from her tough action.

Arroyo also has found support from the influential Roman Catholic Church. Msgr. Hernando Coronel, media director of the church hierarchy, the Catholic Bishop Conference, said: "We are not asking the government troops to wipe them [Abu Sayyaf] out. We are asking that they be flushed out and their hostages rescued by the military and police."

He added that the Abu Sayyaf have committed acts of terrorism that have no religious or ideological basis. The Abu Sayyaf claim they are fighting for a separate Muslim homeland.

Even if the Abu Sayyaf is defeated militarily, it will by no means solve the deep-seated social-economic problems of the Muslim minority, who make up 5 percent of the country's predominantly Christian population.

Although Arroyo has emphasized her government's priority in poverty alleviation, the Muslim issue requires another approach. The government had already made peace with different Muslim separatist groups fighting for a separate homeland. In 1995, a peace accord was signed with the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front, which had spearheaded a 25-year bloody secessionist war in the southern Philippines.

Arroyo, with the help of neighboring Malaysia, has made contacts to talk peace with a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which controls chunks of territory in central Mindanao.

The Abu Sayyaf members are the orphaned children of the Muslim secessionist fighters. But with a war winding down, and no source of livelihood, they have resorted to kidnappings and banditry for survival. The ransom paid for the Sipadan hostages has gone to refurbish the Abu Sayyaf's arsenal, government officials say. Cellphones and speedboats equipped with Volvo engines were signature items used to carry out the Dos Palmas kidnapping, some of the rescued hostages told police.

Containing the Abu Sayyaf may be a temporary measure. But critics warn that unless the minority Muslims are brought into the mainstream of Philippine political and economic life, the issues of terrorism, banditry, and war will not be resolved.

University of the Philippines sociologist Randolph David noted that the predominantly Christian Filipinos have long colonized Mindanao, the Muslims' traditional homeland. But they have "failed to make its people a meaningful part of the Filipino nation."

"We are still paying for the cost of that failure," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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